How brands are balancing COVID fear with festive cheer in holiday ads
In Macy’s holiday spot this year, a young girl, perplexed at what to give her father for Christmas, spends a day walking in his shoes. After visits with the butcher, dry cleaner and wreath seller—none of whom are wearing masks—she settles on a pair of comfortable socks as a gift.
Seeing the spot, viewers would have no idea that it is 2020, a year when the novel coronavirus pandemic has killed a quarter of a million Americans, consumers wear facial protective gear and practice social distancing—and that Macy’s has had to cancel or drastically shrink its own signature holiday events including the Thanksgiving Day Parade and Santaland at Herald Square.
In contrast, marketers including PayPal, Amazon, Kohl’s and Etsy have used the virus as a key plot element in holiday campaigns, many of which highlight the joy families can still experience this year despite being apart. With the pandemic continuing its deadly assault across the nation, and a second wave prompting new lockdowns and school closures, marketers are challenged with creating memorable work for the holidays and beyond in safe and authentic ways for the current situation.
Some brands, including Macy’s and Target, have chosen to produce commercials that tap into the same social spirit of Christmas planning and holiday parties as in previous years, while others, though adopting a positive tone, nevertheless acknowledge the hardships consumers continue to face. The challenge is so real that some partygoers were cut from Target’s original crowded ad following backlash.
As of mid-November, nearly a third of holiday ads have included COVID-19 themes, according to ad tracking firm Ace Metrix, which found that just under 10% of holiday ads included face masks.
“On the one hand, everyone wants to get back to normal—no one wants to be reminded of the pandemic, so why not show the normal scenes?” says Tom Meyvis, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business. “But the reality is, of course, everybody knows that things have changed. It’s not a normal holiday season, so it seems a bit tone-deaf if you don’t acknowledge that.”
Danger of backlash
Indeed, some marketers that have presented a COVID-free campaign are meeting resistance from weary consumers. In the original version of Target’s holiday ad, which was released in late October, groups of people are shown gathering for various events including New Year’s Eve. While a Target spokeswoman said that all people shown were actually from the same household, thus adhering to distancing guidelines, that is not at all apparent to viewers. On Twitter, user Sam Hagle wrote “@Target hey, your TV ad with all those people having a living room Christmas holiday party is super uncomfortable. COVID-19 is real and your ad is encouraging people to be unsafe. Coronavirus cases are spreading. Wear masks, practice social distancing. #Minnvslowa.”
A Target spokeswoman said in a statement, “We understand that our guests are looking for ways to celebrate the joy of the season this year more than ever before, which is why our campaign is focused on highlighting those festive moments.”
Yet, weeks after first airing the spot, Target has already edited the final party scene. The original version showed 11 people gathered for a party; the latest version shows only five. In response to a question from Ad Age about the changes, the spokeswoman noted that Target created multiple variations of its spots. "We recently made the decision to begin running ads that feature smaller groups based on the evolving COVID-19 situation," she said, adding that the retailer will continue to monitor and adjust its approach.
It is possible to lean too far into tragedy, though. In 2008, Dell ran a series of ads that acknowledged too heavily that customers were suffering through the (then) worst economic slump since the Great Depression. They didn’t go over well.
“We learned the hard way over a decade ago that brands need to be incredibly careful around reinforcing negative sentiment,” says Liz Matthews, senior VP of brand, creative and experiential marketing at Dell Technologies. “We learned our lesson and it led to a more informed strategy on what not to do in today’s world. We had data that showed phrases like, ‘in these troubled times’ leads people to feeling panic versus comfort.”
Instead, Matthews says, the goal for messaging should be “realistic optimism”—striking a tone that doesn’t give into fear while still demonstrating empathy. “It all comes down to remembering the human side of your brand,” she adds. “Tap into that to make sure you are delivering a message that aims to connect, not instill uncertainty.”
Withdrawal from mask-free ads
But most consumers are responding positively to the incorporation of COVID-19 in advertising, according to experts. Of the group of holiday ads that featured masks, a majority of viewers felt “positivity” toward their inclusion or reported “no change” in purchase intent, Ace Metrix reported. Despite mass mask adoption by consumers, some marketers are still not getting the message, says Pranav Yadav, founder and CEO of Neuro-Insight U.S., which measures consumer response to advertising.
“We see advertisers completely ignore masks or social distancing in their communication when the situation demands it—and they couldn’t be more wrong,” he says. “As we look at the brain activity, we see a withdrawal response when you see mask-less people in a public setting.”
Etsy’s holiday campaign, its first from 72andSunny, addresses the pandemic in a different way in each spot. In one, the coronavirus is central to the narrative about an older couple longing to be with their grandchildren. Ryan Scott, chief marketing officer of the online craft marketplace, says the spot’s theme mirrors his own personal experience being away from his parents in Florida.
“It’s a struggle—the emotional labor going into that situation right now is real,” Scott says. “We thought it made a lot of sense to show a spot where it reflected the reality of the times.”
In another Etsy spot, masks are shown in the background, but are not core to the story about an Asian girl looking for products with her name. Scott says the COVID incorporation was primarily a responsibility and less an intentional part of the strategy. A third shows a family gathering at home with a focus on welcoming a new member—COVID does not feature in the story.
Though Carter’s, the babywear brand, has incorporated the coronavirus into its holiday work, the brand also added a futuristic note of hope. In a 75-second spot, new parents are shown after the birth of their babies in a hospital. Many individuals are wearing masks, and it is clearly 2020.
“Hello 2020, we all know you well by now. It seems you’re on a mission to break our spirits,” a voiceover says before turning to optimism by featuring photos of many babies born this year. “2020 has given us 3,110,758 reasons to believe we will make tomorrow better than today.”
Jeff Jenkins, executive VP of global marketing at Carter’s, says the reaction to the spot has been “overwhelmingly positive,” as many have joined the conversation by adding their own babies’ names and birthdays to Carter’s social feeds. He says the pandemic has helped the brand improve its communications with customers.
“It’s allowed us to revisit how we speak to our families and embrace a more emotionally driven tone,” he says, noting that next year, the brand will “continue to invest in marketing that creates emotional connections with our families.”
Planning for the future
Even beyond the end-of-year holidays, brands will continue to find it difficult to navigate the ups and down of infection rates and vaccine successes or failures. “We've moved from an all-consuming focus on survival to a more nuanced situation where many of us are actually trying to thrive in uncertain circumstances,” says Neil Barrie, global CEO at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, which created a “Marketing Through Crisis” handbook at the beginning of the pandemic.
Like it or not, Barrie says from now on storytelling will need to acknowledge that “the pandemic is part of the texture of life” and position the brand’s role within that context. Customers are going through hard times, so they’ll need (and likely expect) more from brands, so charitable initiatives and contributions can work well. For example, Meditation app Headspace offered free meditation to anyone in the U.S. who was unemployed as part of a 21CB campaign.
Dell’s latest spot, meanwhile, is an energetic ode to perseverance, and that might be the emotion most relatable to audiences over the long haul. With months more quarantine in sight, sadness is too dour, hope too naïve. But determination and tenacity are the things that just might get us all through.
“Our customers are determined to come out of this on the other side,” Matthews, says, “and we are determined to stop at nothing to help them get there.”